Gaye LeBaron: Homelessness and poverty are not new problems in Sonoma County

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About two weeks ago, when Oakmont residents were meeting to discuss their new neighbors across Highway 12, a Hidden Valley resident went on the social media site Nextdoor to suggest The Press Democrat republish one of my columns from more than 30 years ago.

The column, she wrote, detailed the establishment of Santa Rosa’s Poor Farm in the 1870s.

Her message was asking us to remember that homelessness and poverty are not new problems. Her post:

“Our city fathers established a farm on Chanate Hill with those living there participating in growing grain, vegetables and raising of livestock to feed themselves, the hospital and jail. It was at one time the most profitable farm in the county. They did not rush out and throw down money to buy houses but instead built barns and gave people a purpose. Moving people to a parking lot does nothing to help them help themselves. The article should be republished.”

REPUBLICATION (which is not the political term it sounds like) is an honor I have reserved for one very old Thanksgiving column. So that’s not going to happen. However, when people began to forward the post to me from several directions, I felt compelled to, at least, read it again from where we are today.

I didn’t have to wade into the musty reaches of the old Press Democrat “morgue,” where clippings were stored the old-fashioned way in 1987. A couple clicks online and it popped up, digitized in my archive site at Sonoma State’s Schulz Library.

It is a brief history of the Poor Farm established by the county (not city) government here in 1875 for men and women (in separate quarters) who were “not sick” but could not support themselves. A few, I suppose, were able-bodied idlers. Others were alcoholics, some were addicted to the drugs of the day, and some were, as people termed it then “unhinged.” All were described by whatever term was popular at the time — tramp, vagrant, transient and others even less polite.

Any or all of these could, and often did, result in incarceration. Idling on the streets of any town could get you arrested for “having no visible means of support.” And you would go to jail — or to the Poor Farm. Most of the occupancy was anything but optional.

THAT 1987 COLUMN was background to a then-current event. The county had plans to build a parking lot on the opposite side of Chanate Road from the hospital on the hill.

By ’87, the name had been changed from County Hospital (where all the physicians in the area worked without charging patients a fee) to Community Hospital, and its services were no longer reserved for people who could not pay. “Indigents” they called them in the old days.

But parking lot designers and county officials discovered something that stopped things cold: graves — hundreds of graves, most of them unmarked.

Graves, as we know, can stop freeway construction colder than a 20-truck pileup on Donner Pass in winter. Hereto unknown burials have stopped 20-story apartment buildings, shopping malls and all those things regarded by 1987 as progress.

Ultimately, those graves would catch the attention of a retired Silicon Valley engineer named Jeremy Nichols, who would dig through old records to find whose names belonged on those graves, restore the cemetery markers and collect more information than anyone ever had about the county facility known as the Poor Farm, where most of the occupants of those forgotten graves had lived the last day of their lives.

Then Nichols moved on to other old cemeteries, often overgrown and damaged by vandals, that are scattered throughout the county.

In 2002, he published a 134-page book — “Cemeteries of Sonoma County California, a History and Guide” — to tell the stories of not only his “Potters Field” project on the Chanate property, but all the others, making it easier for genealogists, historians and those of us who simply tell old stories to locate them.

It should be added that Nichols is a tireless and unselfish researcher. When I asked him what he knew about the Poor Farm, I got nine emails, including a 20-page timeline, all of it waiting for the publication of his book on the history of the County Hospital and environs.

THE COLUMN POSTED on Nextdoor last month is a very small part of a sad history about people who don’t fit the molds society makes for them.

Looking at that history from today’s perspective we see two stories, one titled “Then” and the other “Now.” If you don’t like those titles, try “Same” and “Different.”

The “Same” list is simple. A vision from 100 years later is almost always much clearer. What is the same about then and now is the futility of being without a family support system (either because it is withdrawn or, in too many cases, rejected), an inability to live within the bounds of society. It could be because of illness — physical, mental or emotional (read PTSD).

It could be, then as now, the result of a dramatic change of fortune, a family dispute, addiction, alcoholism. Or, with some “vagabond philosophers,” it could, and can, be a lifelong determination to go one’s own way; to, as we so often hear from them, “sleep under the stars.”

One thing is significantly different. In those “old days” (note that I did not say “good old days”) it was generally illegal to be homeless. Vagrants, etc. could be arrested. And were. In some towns just looking suspicious could get you a jail cell. Or a rest-of-life lodging in the Poor Farm.

Today we have rights. We all have rights. We have the right to be homeless, although property rights obviously take precedent. People cannot be arrested for sitting on city sidewalks or setting up rudimentary housekeeping in a county park — or trail. They can be told to move. But they can’t be arrested. Can’t be taken to a farm — as pleasant as that may sound — and put to work to garden and farm and help feed themselves and all those without health care in the county’s hospitals.

Nor can they be asked to choose north or south and given a bus ticket.

We have to wonder if a night in a dry and relatively warm jail cell didn’t sound so bad to people who took to the road in the Great Depression of the 1930s, riding the rails from town to town, seeking work.

In Sonoma County’s history books you can read about 11 of them who died seeking to sleep dry under a prune storage shed beside the tracks on Santa Rosa’s Sebastopol Road that collapsed on a stormy night in 1933.

But, on the other hand, California no longer has the extensive state hospital system that Gov. Hiram Johnson established in 1915. In any ways, it replaced the old poor farms, providing various levels of care for — in latter-day terms — mental illness. By the 1970s, the system was deemed, by Gov. Ronald Reagan and lawmakers, as too expensive for the taxpayers. The promise was that subsidized private care would bear the burden.

BEING HOMELESS, which is our omnibus word today, is not a crime. It is a situation that leaders are asked — implored is perhaps a better word — to deal with.

I guess we can call it progress that we don’t say hobo or bindle-stiff or tramp anymore. At least, I don’t hear it, although I may not be out there enough. We now try to use kinder, gentler terms but they in turn take on a negative tone if that’s the way they are heard. Homeless is not a pejorative, but it is quickly becoming one in some quarters.

As I was reminded last week, this is not a new problem. So we hear from Dickensian London, the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge:

“Have we no prisons? Have we no workhouses?”

The answer, thankfully, is “Yes, we don’t!” We like to think the world has become wiser. We just need to prove it now.

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